Koji Wakamatsu, 1936-2012

Militant filmmaker dies at the age of 76.

It is criminal to shoot from a powerful point of view (Koji Wakamatsu)

In a cinematic year that is proving painfully costly, we learn of yet another death. Dissident Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu has left us. Having been hit by a taxi on the night of the 12 October, he died yesterday in a Tokyo hospital where he had been taken after the accident with injuries to his head and lower back. Born in 1936, Wakamatsu first came to fame as a prolific director of “pink films”, a sort of Japanese version of sexploitation very popular in the 1960s. Partly thanks to the mitigating circumstances of the adult genre and its looser censorial restraints, the director seeded his films with the radical motifs he had started to openly endorse as the Sixties neared their political peak. Though systematically overshadowed by the “romantic” exploits on the Parisian boulevards, the year of 1968 in Japan saw massive protests and prolonged occupations taking place alongside street battles whose sheer size and force belittle anything that took place in the west in comparison. It is in this context that Wakamatsu fully committed his career to the revolutionary cause while cultivating links with ultra-leftist formations such as the armed group United Red Army whose disastrous parable will later be the subject of an eponymous movie.

Despite the ideological orthodoxy of the Japanese extra-parliamentary left, Wakamatsu never succumbed to its fanatical dérives, articulating instead a cogent critique from within, critical but never dismissive. In Sex Jack (1970) for instance, a group of revolutionary students hiding from the police is joined by a shy outsider willing to help them out only to be mistaken for a spy. Locked away from society in a claustrophobically small apartment, the group enacts the kind of exploitative and abusive practices they ostensibly oppose while covering their cowardice in empty revolutionary rhetoric. Sex here is actively deployed as an allegorical element of the story – highlighting the perverted power relations between the group members, males against females – rather than functioning as a mere front for the political subtext. The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966) is Wakamatsu’s personal take on the class struggle, in which he tells an S&M-tinged story of a woman kidnapped and sexually enslaved by her boss whose brutal domination will push the young woman to the use of violence in order to break free. More existential issues were explored in Go, Go Second-Time Virgin (1969), a tender story of a man and a woman talking after he has silently witnessed her rape. The repressed suicidal tendencies and abrupt sentimentality of a traumatised nation emerged in this bleak yet deeply felt film, once again shot with almost no money but plenty of disenchanted passion. In 1970, on his way back from the Cannes Film Festival Wakamatsu stopped in Beirut with his colleague and fellow militant Masao Adachi to shoot a piece of agit-prop filmmaking with the Palestinian resistance, Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971). In 1976 he produced Nagisa Oshima’s sexually explicit masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses.

Always working on extremely low budgets, Wakamatsu made more than 100 movies but worked in virtual obscurity throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, only to resurface more recentlywith United Red Army (2007) and Caterpillar (2010). The former is a colossal epic detailing in unflinching details the rise and fall of the titular armed organisation which dissolved at the hands of Japanese police, as well as falling victim to its own monstrous fanaticism. Caterpillar, which premiered to critical acclaim in Berlin, tells the story of a Japanese soldier returning from the Sino-Japanese war without his arms and legs. Feted as a war hero, the man is in reality a cruel and abusive character tormenting his patient wife who, tired of nursing such a monster, will kill him in cold blood. Until the very end, the Wakamatsu never repented, standing with dignity by his ideals. Only this year,  he presented two new features in Cannes and Venice respectively: 11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Fate and The Millennial Rupture. Interviewed in Paris in 2009, Wakamatsu slyly declared: “I’m not about to change right now, I will always fight the authorities”; signing his premature epitaph with a mischievous smile.

The late Koji Wakamatsu, photographed in May 2012 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit